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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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There is growing recognition among educators and policymakers that out-of-school time (OST) programs are important not just for elementary school students, who need supervision when they are not in school, but also for middle and high school youth, whose participation in OST programs can help keep them engaged in their education at a time when many students are beginning to disengage from school. To better understand how to promote sustained participation among older youth in OST programs, Harvard Family Research Project and Public/Private Ventures, with support from The Wallace Foundation, examined programs with high participation and retention rates to identify the program characteristics found to be the most successful in retaining older youth, as well as the strategies that cities are using to support participation.

This new report, Engaging Older Youth, examines the program practices and structural features of almost 200 OST programs located across six diverse cities—Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—and primarily serving low-income youth.

The report indentifies five OST program characteristics (two program practices and three structural features) that set apart the programs that were the most successful in supporting high retention:

  • Providing many leadership opportunities to youth in the programs
  • Having staff keep informed in several ways about youth outside programs
  • Being community-based
  • Enrolling 100 or more youth
  • Holding regular staff meetings

An additional set of retention and recruitment practices that, while not statistically related to retention when accounting for other factors, were consistently reported as being important in engaging older youth:

  • Retention practices: fostering a sense of community through connections to program staff and peers, providing developmentally appropriate activities and incentives, and engaging families.
  • Recruitment practices: using peers and staff as recruiters, using organizational relationships, and matching program attributes to youth needs.

In addition to identifying key characteristics of OST programs, this study also compares and contrasts the practices that are effective for middle school- versus high school-aged youth, noting that a “one-size-fits-all” strategy does not work well.  Engaging Older Youth also details the influence of city-level OST initiatives on programs and identifies the types of city-level services that are likely to support participation. Together, these findings can help OST leaders and city initiatives alike to improve their existing recruitment and retention strategies for older youth.

Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization with offices in Philadelphia, New York City and Oakland. For over 30 years, P/PV has tackled critical challenges facing low-income communities – by seeking out and designing innovative programs, rigorously testing them and promoting solutions proven to work. Learn more at

The Wallace Foundation commissioned the report as part of its effort to help develop lessons relevant to cities on how to build systems that coordinate and support high-quality out-of-school time. As part of its out-of-school time initiative, launched in 2003, Wallace granted funds to support after-school system-building initiatives in: Boston; Chicago; New York City; Providence; and Washington, DC. This investment was designed to help create citywide system-building efforts that could advance three interrelated goals for the out-of-school-time field: improving program quality, making programs accessible to youth who need them most, and improving youth participation so more children can realize benefits.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; enhancing out-of-school-time learning opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts. Learn more at

Free. Available online only.

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project